The head of Discovery+ is bullish on high-end nonfiction content.
“We’re investing in premium documentaries, a genre that we know our subscribers want more of,” Lisa Holme, group SVP of content and commercial strategy for Discovery, said Thursday at the streamer’s Winter Press Tour presentation. She added, “That allows us to support some of the best storytellers in the business.”
Among those acclaimed storytellers is Oscar-nominated filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky (Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, Cries From Syria), whose latest documentary, Francesco, premieres on Discovery+ on March 28. The film examines Pope Francis’s moral leadership on many of the most important problems facing the world.
“From the beginning the idea was to have us, humanity, as the key element of the story…what disasters we created, what poverty we created, what injustice we created,” Afineevsky said during the TCA panel. “And to tell his story as somebody who is trying by himself to navigate us, to show us [an] example, to show us step by step how we can change these things.”
The director revealed his initial cut of the film ran eight hours long. He said he was asked to consider making it into a docu-series, but felt a single film would be more impactful. He sees Francesco as a call to action.
“We need to reevaluate our actions, leave a lot of things in the past,” Afineevsky said, “and with the fresh thoughts, with a different approach, move into the future.”
Along with global warming, the worldwide refugee crisis, the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and other issues, the film delves into the pope’s response to the sexual abuse scandal that has damaged the Catholic Church.
“He allowed me to tackle any issues, bring [in any] voices. I was showing to him different parts of the movie, different pieces of the movie, and I never had any restrictions or any [objections],” Afineevsky noted. “He gave me my full respect as an artist…I cherish his ability to allow me to tell these stories and allow me to bring this to the bigger world with his help.”
Juan Carlos Cruz, who was sexually abused as a boy in Chile by a Catholic priest, plays a substantial role in the documentary. He saluted Pope Francis for evolving his response to the scandal, from initially defending some prelates accused of sexual misdeeds to taking strong action against some alleged abusers.
“Pope Francis wrote a letter to the world apologizing, admitting his mistake and that was unheard of. No other pope had done that,” Cruz said. “This is a man that recognizes his mistakes and a man that is not ashamed to recognize an error and to mend it and to admit that he has made a mistake and fix it.”
Francesco made news last year when it premiered at the Rome Film Festival over a moment in the film when the pontiff appeared to endorse gay civil unions. There continues to be dispute over precisely where Pope Francis stands on that question. On another issue of contention within the Holy See, the pope altered church law last month, permitting women to take a more central role at mass, although he did not endorse women becoming priests.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, participated in the panel discussion Wednesday and spoke highly of Francis.
“Pope Francis brings that sense of hope to all of us by his own humanity, his own grounded-ness to human life and to human reality,” Sister Norma commented. “I think that his presence, his example, models for us the importance of humanity in the present day today and to make sure that we respond to that in a caring, good, positive way.”
Francesco premieres on Discovery+ at the start of Holy Week, leading up to Easter Sunday. For his film, Afineevsky not only spent time with the current pope, but with his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Pope Francis has sent handwritten notes to Afineevsky praising his work on the film, which may be ironic, because the pope wasn’t the most eager of interviewees.
“From the beginning he actually said that he doesn’t want to be on camera for the movie because he’s not an actor. He’s a Jesuit,” Afineevsky said. “For him, he would rather go to the ends of the world to help the people.”